September 13, 2007

Encountering Strangers on the Bus to Nowhere

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James Carville, famous partly for his role in Bill Clinton’s successful 1992 presidential campaign but mostly for losing a government affairs debate to Will Ferrell in his cameo in Old School, once said of the Keystone State, “Pennsylvania is Philadelphia and Pittsburgh with Alabama in between.”

For anyone who has wandered into the vast negative space of Central PA or has found themselves staring out the passenger side window for hours at a rotation of rolling hills, barns with chipped paint, old wooden fences cracked in purposelessness and disinterested cows—like watching a hillbilly merry-go-round–this quote rings specifically true. But Carville’s statement is largely superficial, as he fails to capture the overriding strangeness of the place. Central PA is more Alabama than Alabama is.

In the middle of this madness, surrounded by a virgin landscape dotted with dairy farms and hunting grounds and paintball courses and Amish people and abandoned Bible camps and crayon factories and chocolate factories, stands my destination for last weekend’s travels: Penn State University.

The trip to State College, PA isn’t exactly what one would call easy. Nine hours of staring at cows and trees interrupted every few hours by maddening layovers in seedy bus stations will ensure that you think twice about the necessity of a trip to Happy Valley. But if you do find a trip necessary, as I did (Notre Dame vs. Penn State; my attendance was pretty essential), the people you encounter on the way will undoubtedly unhinge your very definition of the word “strange.”

First, there is the guy behind the counter at the Ithaca Greyhound Station. The talkative twenty something spends the half hour from 12:00 to 12:30 entrenched in a monologue concerning the sleeping habits of his dog (a Boston terrier who was at work with his master and growled at his customers). “But I don’t let him under the covers with me so he sleeps under the bed. Like directly under where I’m laying in the bed…Sometimes I’ll wake up in the middle of the night—you know how you do that sometimes, just like wake up randomly in the night-—but yeah he’ll just be sitting there next to the window awake just looking down at people.” A customer mumbles an interruption to which he replies, “No sorry sir we ship people not packages.” I look at the dog, then at the clock, and wait to be shipped.

The guy sitting behind me on the way to Binghamton talks to his friend about Brooklyn and getting stabbed and who is getting ready to come out of jail, using words like “G” and “homie” that I’m fairly certain are only used in bad Ice Cube movies. I sit in front of him and read/highlight “important” sections of an essay about the influence of Kantian philosophy on international politics.

On the bus ride from Scranton to Harrisburg, the Amish guy in the first row goes to the bathroom at least three times, accidentally waking me from my sleep by bumping into my overhanging legs. I wonder if bladder-control is a distinctly Amish issue. Is it a gene thing? Is water-drinking substantially more valued in Mennonite culture? More natural milk? I’m intrigued.

There are four people on the 7:30 bus from Harrisburg to State College. The driver, a middle-aged man with grey hair and a southern accent, talks about driving non-stop from a nameless Central, PA town to Kissimmee, FL. He complains about the traffic. When I look out the window, the one-lane highway is empty except for a few cars and our awkward bus. Traffic is the presence of others on a landscape characterized by utter emptiness.

Before we reach the bus station we have to navigate past hoards of drunken college students playing realized Frogger, laughing and clapping, deaf to the horns of angry motorists, blind to the middle fingers of alumni dads. The most striking aspect of Penn State is the sheer volume of people. This oasis of displaced Philadelphians and Pittsburghers in the middle of rural Pennsylvania is a true spectacle of immensity. Think of “that dude” in high school who was hyperactive and kind of an asshole and got drunk before school functions just to say he did. Clone him forty thousand times and put all those clones in a ten square mile area and you have Penn State.

The weekend rose and fell in a literal blur. The thirty-six hours at State College felt more like five. There were frat parties with attendance pushing five hundred, twenty-foot beer bongs, backyards that looked like recycling plants, shout after shout of “we are!,” forty-five minute lines at 4:00AM at a crappy Taqueria, 12:00 noon tailgates with no food, a twenty five thousand person student section singing Zombie Nation, post-game pregames. The exhausting pace left me well, exhausted: so much so that I barely made my 10:05AM Sunday morning bus back to reality.

The four hour ride from State College to Wilkes-Barre proved increasingly intolerable. The bus though trudged its way on cracked, uneven streets, careless to the state of its riders—mostly college students, hungover and reeling, unsuccessfully nibbling at pretzels and taking tiny sips of bottled water, trying to will the world to stop spinning into itself.

At the Wilkes-Barre bus station, a pastoral white family inexplicably poses for a few pictures. Mom with a pink polo and dyed hair fumbles with the camera as dad mimics directions while still clutching the shoulder of his disinterested son. I sit trying to decipher passages of The Canterbury Tales in Middle English. Lacking motivation, I quit and watch football on an old TV with a frail old lady who innocently tells me that she only gets one channel at her house because she broke the knob. She tells me that she’s going to get a new one this week though. I’m too relieved to wonder how she mustered the strength to break a knob.

The bus to Binghamton makes a pit stop at a Burger King about twenty minutes outside of town. A family of four buys seven orders of small fries. I’m confused and tired and don’t even want to eat, so I mosey through the parking lot until I start to get rained on.

The pet motif comes to an eerily coincidental conclusion on the final bus back to Ithaca, when a skinny black guy chewing on a straw and a white woman in her mid-twenties talk about the territorial nature of cats. Apparently cats, unlike dogs, aren’t very territorial unless they are in competition with other animals, in which case they get very territorial and “nasty.” The conversation shifts toward the black guy’s desire to get a kitten, then fades to black once both of them have covered all points relevant to feline idiosyncrasy.

Driving back to Cornell’s North Campus, I can see the epic bell tower sitting atop the hill. We ascend back to the Ivy League, leaving strangers behind to dwell in our runoff. I try to think back on the weekend to draw some sort of conclusion. But my brain is overloaded. The disorienting combination of these strange people set against an even stranger landscape serves as further proof of the theory that the world is colossal and jagged. This strange weekend to the south and back proves that each day is not just a day, but an exhibition of the absurd.